Why Black Superheroes Succeed - and Fail

Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?

What if Peter Parker — Spidey's angst-ridden alter ego — had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?

With the release of Spider-Man 2 — the much-anticipated sequel to the 2002 summer blockbuster — the friendly neighborhood Web Slinger seems to be more popular than ever. Spider-Man's enduring appeal can be attributed to many things: his arachnid abilities, his cool costume, his wisecracking antics during heated battles with villains, or the tragic irony of his character — that despite his superhero status, he cannot protect his loved ones.

But when Spider-Man debuted in Marvel Comics, the United States was divided along color lines. The civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were leading issues of the day.

As explosive and divisive the civil rights movement was — and still is — readers may not have been so receptive to a wisecracking, butt-kicking African-American in a spider suit.

"It's an interesting question, it's tough to say because often characters of a product of their times and good timing. Certainly, he would have had to had dealt with a different set of problems," said Joe Quesada, Marvel editor-in-chief.

"On a consumer level, I don't know have the demographics from that time, but I would venture to say that maybe 99 percent of our readers were white maybe?" he said. "And then you have a question of whether the consumer would have been ready to accept the character. Would they have been as receptive to Spider-Man if he had been drawn black? I don't know. Given what I know about the times, perhaps not. One of the beautifully universal things about Spider-Man is that the character wears a full mask. Anyone could be under that costume."

Introducing Blokhedz

In recent months, fans have been receptive to a new comic book and black superhero who is, in many ways, more anxiety-ridden than Peter Parker.

Last December, the hip-hop-themed Blokhedz — an independent comic book that focuses on an aspiring teen rap artist named Blak and his struggles with inner-city life and the slaying of his older brother — debuted and has steadily gained a word-of-mouth following. Blak has a supernatural ability to control others with his raps and rhymes that he apparently acquires after being slashed by a cursed knife during a skirmish with gang members.

Unlike other superheroes, Blak — and others characters in Blokhedz — do not wear capes, costumes or masks. Blak is as normal — powers aside — as any teenager. His environment and story reflect some the experiences and comic books Blokhedz creators and twin brothers Mark and Mike Davis shared in their formative years.

"In many ways, Blokhedz is like a return to some of the Saturday morning cartoons and comic books — the mythology — that we used to enjoy," said Mark Davis. "We just thought that kids today should have something like that."

The Pioneering, Nonpolitical Black Panther

The first African-American superhero in comics can be traced back to newspapers in the 1940s, when Will Eisner introduced the Spirit and his young, black, balloon-lipped sidekick Ebony White. But in comic books, the first mainstream black superhero emerged when Black Panther appeared in Marvel's Fantastic Four No. 52, four years after Spider-Man's debut.

Black Panther was the alter ego of T'Challa, the dignified king of a fictional African kingdom called Wakanda who led a double life as a costumed crimefighter. The character had no link to the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seales that same year, in 1966. For a time, Black Panther's name was changed to "The Black Leopard."

Still, the character was accepted, even as the civil rights movement was becoming more militant.

"I think it's worth noting that Black Panther was African as opposed to African-American," said Marvel Comics editor Axel Alonso. "One must wonder if it was easier to deal with that character in that context, given the times."

The Falcon, a Harlem social worker/crimefighter, debuted in Marvel as an ally of Captain America in 1969. Black Panther and The Falcon paved the way for creation of other African-American superheroes in the 1970s and comic book series that focused on them as title characters.

An Age of Progress and Blaxploitation

Though Black Panther was the pioneer for black superheroes, he did not get his own solo comic book title until 1977. Gang member-turned crime-busting mercenary Luke Cage (also known as "Power Man") became the first African-American superhero to be the title character of a comic book when Marvel published Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in 1972.

Cage and other characters from that time were portrayed as strong African-American men, but they carried the baggage of what became perceived as black stereotypes. They tended to reflect the blaxploitation films of the 1970s — from the best in Melvin Van Peebles' landmark Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song to less than critically acclaimed movies such as Blackenstein and Black Samson.

Cage and D.C. Comics' Black Lightning were cousins of cinema's Shaft and Superfly. In the beginning, they tended to be jive-talking, Afro-wearing supermen who battled more urban or ghetto-oriented villains. Cage in particular was known for, among other things, his trademark Afro and open-chested canary-colored shirt with the butterfly collar.

Still, Cage and Black Lightning represented the best comic book characters of that blaxploitation era. Actor Nicolas Cage was such a fan of Hero for Hire that he took his stage name from the character.

A Short-Lived Milestone

But these characters — as well as Black Panther and The Falcon — have not been nearly as successful as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and The Hulk.

No black superhero has had the kind of sustained run enjoyed by Batman, Spider-Man and Superman in their own comic books. None has a hit TV show or blockbuster movie. The Panther had three different solo series that ran in the late 1970s, 1980s and late '90s. Cage's books ran between 1972 and 1986 before being revived for two other volumes in 1992 and in 2002.

"You have to wonder why some characters have been so popular and why some have not," said M. Thomas Inge, professor of English and the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "In many ways we have made a lot of progress, but there are things that suggest that perhaps we have not."

In 1993, a group of African-American cartoonists — Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle and Michael Davis — launched Milestone Media with the goal of publishing comics featuring a new set of heroes who happened to be black, Asian and Hispanic. Milestone Media had a licensing agreement with D.C. Comics and unleashed the new heroes, led by characters such as Icon and Static.

However, Milestone's books did not sell well and the company folded in 1997. Some critics and readers could not relate to the comics because they thought characters were too black. Some thought the characters weren't black enough. But others say Milestone's poor sales should be blamed on the overall state of the industry at the time.

"I'd say what happened had more to do with business reasons than with the characters and the product," said Quesada. "Because some of their stories were highly enjoyable. … The bottom was falling out in the industry at the time."

Some believe the books were not marketed properly.

"I don't think the books were sold where the audience was," said Mark Davis, co-creator of Blokhedz. "There are no comic book shops where most black people live."

An Upcoming Renaissance?

Milestone's books can still be found in the bins of comic specialty shops. Its most popular hero, Static, can be seen daily on the WB cartoon series Static Shock. Its influence also lives on in today's comic book creators.

"A lot of things you see in Blokhedz reflect some things my brother and I experienced growing up and some of the Saturday morning cartoons and comic books we used to enjoy," Mark Davis said. "With [Milestone's] Icon and Static — they were like our Spider-Man and Batman."

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has distributed Blokhedz at his Hip Hop Summit Action Network's events. According to the Blokhedz team, some barbershops have also sold the books, and they have received inquiries from some schools, guidance counselor offices and churches. The Davis brothers hope that ultimately, Blokhedz could be made into a feature film.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics is planning to relaunch Black Panther in a new comic book series either at the end of this year or early next year.

Maybe this will be the start of a renaissance for Black Panther. And perhaps he — along with Luke Cage — will someday join Spider-Man, the X-Men and Blade in the movie blockbuster club.